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Celebrating Two Decades of Fine Woodworking in Australia

Craft Arts International Magazine #60 2004

by Terry Martin

In 1977 a young furniture maker named David Mac Laren arrived in Australia from New York. He had a fulfilling life as a furniture maker in America, but he became disillusioned with pervasive materialism and came to Australia to try to establish a more meaningful life. Like many at that time, he dreamt of self-sufficiency, so he bought rural land near the village of Bungendore, 30 minutes from Canberra, and set up his workshop. Eventually Mac Laren decided to open a gallery because he wanted a place to display his furniture and pieces by other furniture makers. It was a simple desire that gave no hint of the success and expansion of the coming years.

In September, 1983 Mac Laren rented the old Bungendore General Store and shortly afterwards opened Bungendore Wood Works Gallery (BWWG) with the first exhibition, "Perspectives in American Black Walnut". It featured furniture by local makers who used timber he had brought from the US. It was a modest start, but the gallery grew steadily, both in reputation and in the range of work it presented.

After many years of success Mac Laren felt the need to expand, so he designed his dream space and in April, 1994 the new BWWG was opened. It is divided into two main spaces - the ground-floor area is used for general sales,

'Something Special' displayed in the Octagonal Artspace on the first-floor level of the gallery while upstairs there is a spacious gallery where several exhibitions per year are held.

This combination of retail and exhibition space is what makes BWWG such a prominent presence in the field. Mac Laren was conscious that the growth of BWWG 'coincided with an extraordinary period for wood- craft, wood art, design, studio furniture and woodturning'. Hence he decided to hold an exhibition to celebrate the past 20 years of success. In a kind of family birthday party, Mac Laren invited makers who had previously exhibited with BWWG over the years to contribute work which they deemed reflected their enduring passion - in his words, 'something special', which became the title of the exhibition. Something Special opened on 5 September, 2003.

Featuring 31 makers from around the country, this exhibition is an all-embracing snapshot of what is being made in Australia now. The work is extremely diverse, including many styles and techniques, most of which are a celebration of the unique qualities of our native timbers. This is particularly evident in the use of quintessentially Australian timbers such as red gum, jarrah, or red cedar.

Gray Hawk's wonderful Scy Chairs in red gun are an example of the furniture maker's incessant quest for the original chair. Slightly anthropomorphic with their slim waists, splayed legs and casually relaxed arms, they invite you to fit your body into their own reflection of the human form. Australians are good rule-breakers and these chairs challenge our preconceived notions of furniture.

For most Australians, red gum also evokes thoughts of the landscape. Peter Carrigy's Crescent Moon - Desert Oak Dunes uses salvaged red gum to evoke the bush. Inspired by the texture of desert oak seedpods and flowing sand dunes, the piece is a small symphony of textures, form and reflected light.

Red cedar is so prized that it is usually used to produce works of rare beauty. For uniqueness, it is impossible to go beyond the work of Robert Howard, whose pieces but the fact that one of his chairs was selected by Maloof himself for an international chair exhibition in the US, gives the imprimatur of the master to Kenway's work - a rare honour. This chair, so rich in grain, colour and flowing lines, is a perfect example of the chair as both furniture and sculpture.

Alan Williams' red cedar Nautilus Box is also a gem. Pseudo drawers rotate around its central axis, but only two or three can be opened at any time without the contents spilling. But why should a drawer not be a sculptural statement? The inward-spiralling cavities are their own self-referential mystery and this is an engaging example of the meeting of craft and art.

If chairs and drawers didn’t work for you as sculpture, there was sufficient true sculpture to satisfy, such as John Van Der Kolk's Torso - Study #48. Again, the rich colour and swirling grain of red cedar is the perfect palette for this sensual celebration of the female form. John Beasley's Birth of a Galaxy satisfied my need for three-dimensional mystery. It is hard for any image to do justice to this twisting, writhing work - you have to walk around it and explore every angle. Ken Martin’s Temple 4 Two (subsequently stolen from the Gallery) is an enigmatic sculptural piece. Is it eroticism, or is it pathos? Either way, it's a striking work in mallee, which was once only valued as firewood. Imagine all the potential sculpture in this wood that has gone up in smoke over the generations!

John Commacchio's Display Cabinet combines Australian timbers in a masterly piece of furniture that is a wonderful homage to the rich tones of blackwood. This piece is a blend of traditional techniques (hand-veneering, sliding dovetails) and modem technology (concealed wiring for the low-voltage lighting, hidden magnetic door catches). Commacchio's cabinet is one of those pieces which should belong in a national furniture collection. Aside from the sensitive use of Australian timbers in this exhibition, the craftsmanship is also a marvel. Susan Wraight is a world- famous netsuke artist and her Ship of Fools is yet another masterpiece. If you are ever privileged to hold one of her pieces, you will find yourself lost in an intricate miniature world, redolent with superbly crafted metaphor and meaning. Crowded on the Ship of Fools is a mismatched crew who will surely bring the voyage to a disastrous end. It is not hard to see why her work is among the best netsuke collections in the world, including the Japanese Imperial family.

I have been an admirer of Richard Raffan’s work for 20 years and, like everyone else, expect excellence from this internationally renowned woodturner. But his Bowl Form in this show is possibly the best bowl I have ever seen. Part of a set of three, it's the only one without legs, resting gently on its rounded base. Its perfect line, the four restrained beads which define its diameter, the softly inward-rolling rim, the perfect juxtaposition of mass and wall thickness - Raffan has spent his life refining the art of making bowls and he has produced a masterpiece here.

Cheekiness, not cleverness, is a common Australian trait and Leon Sadubin has been as cheeky as any in this show. When I think of his work, I usually think of high-end furniture, but Sadubin has really indulged himself in Woodhill Windform. This verandah bench sways alarmingly under the force of the wind, its copper foliage flapping in the breeze. Even the surface of the timber is scoured as if blasted by sand-laden sea winds. In a final twist, the bench even comes with a leather thong to tether it to the verandah post. None of this hides the quality construction we expect from such an experienced maker.

Of all the furniture in this show, Neil Erasmus's Chairs satisfied the test which is, for me, at once the most objective and subjective: the "sit-in-it-and-see" test. Objective, because you are not beguiled by image and cleverness; subjective, because it tells you how a chair feels, which should count for more than anything. Every person will find their own fit, but for me these were the kind of chair I could forget I was sitting in, so gently did they guide me into good posture. His Tan Desk and Chair Set has small arching buttresses which not only set off the characteristically fine design, but also strengthen the whole structure.

Nick Hill's Dining Table is also made in typical Australian timbers: bloodwood, jarrah and blue gum. Hill has also made the most of the inherent strength of these timbers to create light, but strong bracing. I like his reference to the chromed and laminex-topped kitchen tables of the 1950s that many of these makers must have grown up with. If the number of other furniture makers on their knees looking at it speaks strongly in much of these works. Gray Hawk describes his work as, “My gift to those trees I've harvested'' Lindsay Dunn says: “I impose as much of my will as I can, but leave it up to the wood to have the final say on its form.”

There was much more to be had in this exhibition than what I have described. The list of makers is a veritable Who's Who of woodwork in Australia and if I have failed to do justice to all the work it is not through lack of respect. One very obvious and rather disturbing fact is that there were so few exhibiting woodworkers in the show under 50. MacLaren did want to invite makers who have been making for 20 years or more, so a certain vintage is to be expected, but it begs the question: does it take a life-time to develop the skills required to make good work? In many ways this exhibition was really a hurrah for the baby-boomers. Was there an explosion of creativity among that generation which has yet to be replicated? Maybe the next exhibition at BWWG will be of work by young woodworkers.

I only wish this show could have toured Australia. To Bungendore Wood Works Gallery we owe enduring thanks and look forward with anticipation to the next 20 years.

Thursday 13 March 2008